Understanding the 3 Approaches of Adult Cancer Patients to Healthcare

Today’s Patient Journey

The modern cancer patient lives in a vastly different world than those who were diagnosed just a decade ago. In addition to the burden of their diagnosis, they are immediately inundated with a myriad of choices about their care, from doctors, specialists and facilities, to treatments, teams and alternatives. Technology has played a key role in the evolution of cancer patient journeys by providing easy access to information. This has resulted in patients being much more informed and involved in healthcare decisions throughout their journey. However, despite the rise of cultural healthcare trends fostered by technology, like healthcare consumerism, not every patient approaches their healthcare like an information addict. In fact, in our research, we found that there are three predominant types of adult cancer patients and each has their own unique approach to making decisions that impact their treatment journey.

Patient #1: The Online Researcher

Not surprisingly, the majority of cancer patients (38 percent) fall into the category of Online Researchers, and as their name indicates, they are voracious consumers of internet information concerning their health. Patients who approach their diagnosis by researching it typically rely heavily on medical practice websites for the majority of their information and believe that the guidance they find there is reliable, helpful and trustworthy. These patients also supplement the information found on medical practice sites with online reviews (HealthGrades, Google, etc.), and patient testimonials that they hear or see on medical sites, and in commercials.

Beyond valuing the ability to use the internet to make more informed decisions about their healthcare, Online Researchers especially appreciate:

  • Testimonials from cancer patients, who share their treatment journey to help others
  • Seeing a variety of experiences that patients have so they know what to expect
  • Opportunities to connect with other cancer patients either online or in person

Because Online Researchers embrace technology, they expect to be able to schedule appointments and pay their bills online. They are also more interested than others in using smartphones and apps to assist them as they navigate their healthcare journey.


Online Researchers say it’s more important to research a prospective oncologist than other healthcare providers, and 56% have researched a doctor or practice this year.

Patient #2: The Traditional Truster

Patients in the Traditional Truster category make up our second largest group (33 percent), and their methods for making healthcare decisions are remarkably different from Online Researchers.  For example, whereas Online Researchers are more likely to engage in healthcare consumerism (comparison shopping) Traditional Trusters do not consider cost a deciding factor when choosing an oncologist.

Traditional Trusters are also much more likely to follow their doctor’s advice rather than perform their own research about their diagnosis. Because their decisions are relationally motivated and not research-driven, they prefer to talk to healthcare professionals directly and ask questions, instead of mining a website for answers. Loyal and trusting, this group of patients typically seeks out oncologists who specialize in their type of cancer, and once they find doctors they can relate to, they stick with them. For this reason, Traditional Trusters feel it’s extremely important to choose the right oncologist the first time. When seeking to build a relationship with an oncologist, Traditional Trusters value:

  • In-person engagement with care providers
  • Doctors who take the time to actively listen
  • Friendly front desk staff

Patient #3: The Alternative Seeker

Our third category of patients, Alternative Seekers, are known for their willingness to seek non-traditional cancer treatments, such as herbs, supplements or acupuncture, in addition to conventional methods like surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. In the not too distant past, this group might have comprised a small fraction of cancer patients, but our research found this growing population represents nearly a third (29 percent) of adult cancer patients. Introverted in their approach to navigating their healthcare journey, Alternative Seekers are also more likely to feel that a cancer diagnosis shouldn’t be discussed outside of family members and close friends.

In addition to keeping their diagnosis very private, these patients are also much more likely to say that most doctors aren’t very friendly. While the latter statement may seem like an innocuous prejudice, a similar study conducted by UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, TX, found a significant number of Alternative Seekers do not tell their doctors about the alternatives they are pursuing. Dr. David Gerber, a lung cancer specialist and a Professor of Internal Medicine and Population and Data Sciences at UTSW, maintains that it’s critical for doctors to know if patients use herbal supplements. “They may interact with the medicines we’re giving them, and alter the level of the medicine in the patient. If the levels get too high, then toxicities increase, and if the levels get too low, the efficacy drops,” said Gerber.

Although Alternative Seekers are not averse to taking risks by pursuing new and unproven treatments, these decisions are not made without a significant measure of stress. Our research found that while this group is just as likely to have insurance coverage as Traditional Trusters and Online Researchers, they are much more likely to worry that changes in insurance will result in not seeing the oncologist they prefer or getting the treatment they need. In other words, this group struggles with more fear and distrust of the system throughout their healthcare journey than their counterparts.

Cancer Patient Commonalities

Although we have discussed the primary differences between the three types of adult cancer patients, it’s also important to note that there are several attitudes and perceptions that they all have in common. These include the beliefs that:

  • It’s impossible to know if an oncologist is right for you without meeting him/her in person
  • It’s important to know an oncologist’s background and qualifications before choosing one
  • It’s more important to be seen quickly, than to see a particular oncologist
  • The opinions of family or friends in choosing an oncologist are not a deciding factor

Set Aside Stereotypes

It may be tempting to visualize Online Researchers as young people choosing doctors via a smartphone; and Traditional Trusters as elder-folk who aren’t tech savvy; and Alternative Seekers as granola-loving hipsters, but this would be completely wrong. In each group there were no significant differences found in terms of age, gender, education level, or household income. This means a GenY female, who dropped out of college and makes seven figures via her YouTube channel is just as likely to be a Traditional Truster, as a tech-savvy GenX male, with an MBA and a six-figure income. That’s a fascinating finding, especially when you consider that most oncology practices are going to have cancer patients representing all three types of approaches to healthcare decision-making.

Your oncology practice likely serves all three patient types: Online Researchers, Traditional Trusters and Alternative Seekers!

Nichols Top Five Takeaways

Let’s summarize what we’ve gleaned so far from our research:

  1. Not all adult cancer patients feel the same about their treatment journey or their oncologists.
  2. There are three distinct approaches most adults take when making healthcare decisions:

(a) Online Researchers — those who perform research online

(b) Traditional Trusters — those who rely on doctor relationships and recommendations

(c) Alternative Seekers — those who seek alternatives to traditional medicine

  1. Your practice, service line or center of excellence likely serves all three types of decision-makers.
  2. You cannot assume which decision-making approach a patient will take based on demographics.
  3. All three types of patients have common beliefs, including a need to know an oncologist’s

background and qualifications, and a desire to meet an oncologist in person before making a decision.

Turn Insights Into Advantages

Now that you know your practice needs to accommodate the decision-making processes that guide all three types of patients in making healthcare decisions, we’d like to invite you to reach out to Nichols Brand Stories care. We offer a performance-driven approach to developing marketing programs that resonate with your patients. Let us put our experience in creating compelling personalized patient marketing to work for you. To get started, or simply to have a conversation about your brand, please contact us.

The following blog is based on extensive research conducted in 2021 byNichols Brand Storiescare and Audience Audit to better understand the healthcare decisions of cancer patients.